Sunday, June 16, 2024

The Trump indictment, a polarised America

The Manhattan District attorney’s unprecedented action of indicting former United States President Donald Trump through a grand jury, on 34 felony charges relating to falsifying business records with the intention to commit another crime, has set the tenor for the coming campaign cycle which will culminate in the 2024 U.S. presidential election.

On the one hand there is little doubt that the 45th President flirted with the boundaries of legality through his presidency (2016-20), whether it was his attempts at election interference in Fulton County, Georgia, his role in inciting the January 6, 2021, insurrection, or his possession of classified information after leaving the White House. Indeed, criminal investigations are underway for each of these potential cases for the prosecution.

Plethora of cases

First, in Georgia, Fulton County District Attorney/prosecutor Fani Willis is examining the actions of Mr. Trump and his associates in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election, particularly their attempts to exert pressure upon state officials to undo Mr. Trump’s loss of the state in the election — including the now-infamous call to Georgia State Secretary Brad Raffensperger on January 2, 2021, during which Mr. Trump demanded that the Secretary “find 11,780 votes”. The inquiry has also delved into plans to send fake electors to the Electoral College who would claim that Mr. Trump won, and the Trump team’s calls to Georgia Governor Brian Kemp and others to press them on contesting the election results. While the investigation’s work was completed in January, its report remains under wraps for the moment.

Second, as far as the House of Representatives panel investigating the role of Mr. Trump in the January 2021 insurrection is concerned, the committee in question shut down earlier this year after an 18-month inquiry, culminating in an 814-page report to the Justice Department that recommended prosecuting Mr. Trump. While the committee’s referral has no legal weight to compel an indictment by the Justice Department, the enormous trove of evidentiary documents, statements of facts, and testimonies is likely to be of considerable value to the Department as it embarks on an investigation of its own.

Third, Attorney General of the of the United States Merrick Garland last year appointed Special Counsel Jack Smith to lead multiple probes into Mr. Trump’s handling of classified documents post the end of his term in office. While Mr. Trump’s attorney’s certified in June 2022 that a “diligent search” for classified documents conducted at Mr. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida yielded all classified documents on the site and they were then handed over to federal authorities, a short while later a Federal Bureau of Investigation raid discovered more than 100 further undisclosed documents.

Along with probes into the actions of the Trump Organization’s business dealings, each of these lines of inquiry has led to a sprawling mega-investigation of Mr. Trump and his associates. This implies that the first indictment against him, in the hush-money case, is only the beginning.

Agenda of hate

Stepping back from the cases against Mr. Trump, it is pertinent to ask what the impact of these investigations might be on his base of supporters across the U.S., particularly in light of him characterising the inquiries as a “witch hunt” and “political persecution”. On the one hand it is no surprise that the American electorate remains as bitterly polarised as ever. A Pew Research Center poll last year found that the proportion of Republicans and Democrats who viewed not just the opposing party but also its members as close-minded, dishonest, immoral, unintelligent and lazy has increased significantly from 2016 to 2022. For example, it was striking that in 2016, 47% of Republicans and 35% of Democrats said that those in the other party were a lot or somewhat more immoral than other Americans; yet by August 2022, 72% of Republicans regarded Democrats as more immoral, and 63% of Democrats said the same of Republicans.

This means that through the administrations of Mr. Trump and current U.S. President Joe Biden, Americans are now talking past each other and the sense of the two sides having entirely different worldviews with almost no common ground whatsoever has deepened — for example with regard to reproductive rights in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court removing the constitutional right to abortion.

However, in its ‘purest’ form, Trumpism, as a political movement, has less to do with conservative social values that appeal to the core of the Republican Party faithful than it does with transactional nativism. Indeed, some have even characterised Mr. Trump as a socially moderate, not extremist, conservative. The forces that catapulted the Trump administration to power and the policy chaos that his White House unleashed were, however, a function of populism that revolved around economic policies that purportedly protected the disenfranchised, white, blue-collar worker in middle America.

Mr. Trump’s political rhetoric and executive actions also prioritised institutional disengagement on global treaties — whether in regard to his administration driving the U.S.’s exit from the Paris climate accord and UN Human Rights Council, or its broadside attacks on the World Trade Organization and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

These forces are still alive and well. At the domestic level, through the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been visceral opposition to vaccine mandates and restrictions on movements and gatherings. The anti-science conspiracy theorists have regularly used disinformation to attack public health professionals — including former Chief Medical Adviser to the U.S. President, Dr. Anthony Fauci — in a bid to spread hate and blunt the impact of policies designed to curb the spread of the virus.

Mr. Trump was at the heart of this propagandistic messaging in many instances, including, early on in the pandemic, when he variously questioned the efficacy of masks, and talked up unproven and unscientific treatments. He also crippled the potential of the federal government to slow the proliferation of the coronavirus in 2020, when his administration failed to quickly roll out an effective COVID-19 testing plan, to put together a comprehensive national strategy for distributing protective equipment to medical professionals, and to rapidly ramp up contact tracing.

On the global front, America’s retreat from its own unipolar status has proceeded apace. Having exited a variety of international treaties, the focus of Trumpist rhetoric has now shifted back to domestic economic concerns. On the one hand, the efforts of the Biden administration to enact a $1.9 trillion stimulus package and bring down the jobless rate to 3.6% in February this year from a peak of 14.7% in April 2020 — with the economy adding over 10 million jobs during that time — has failed to garner political traction for Democrats owing to a toxic combination of soaring inflation and supply chain disruptions. The latter phenomena have stemmed from both the pandemic-related slowing of business activity and from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In parallel, persistent attacks on minorities, especially immigrant workers, for “stealing” American jobs have been a convenient diversion to shift the debate back to the sensitive issues of race and migration. Should Mr. Trump, or even another Republican, enter the Oval Office, Indian high-skilled migrant labour could be impacted under this paradigm too, for example through tightening conditions for the grant of H-1B visas.

Between the surging levels of hatred between social and political groups, and apparent support for Trumpism as a movement, it is likely that even if the cases against Mr. Trump work their way through the courts and lead to convictions, the U.S. is still far from truly reckoning with the promise of its founding fathers to achieve the dream of E pluribus unum, or ‘Out of many, one’.

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